We Must Confront The Epidemic Of Youth Loneliness

What we are witnessing is vast becoming an epidemic. The cost of youth loneliness is up to £34 billion in London alone and in addition the past few years has seen a significant rise in the number of young people seeking counselling for emotional and mental distress, which has been linked back to loneliness.
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As a nation, we seem able to talk openly about the issue of loneliness amongst the elderly, however as a society a degree of discomfort still exists when applied to young people.

Indeed, many of the young people we work with would never openly admit to being lonely for risk of being deemed unpopular or categorised as an outsider.

The widespread perception is that young people have more opportunities than previous generations to live an active social life. Surely, in today's modern age - with the growth of social media and emerging technologies - young people should feel more connected and less isolated than ever before?

The reality though is that when asked in a safe environment (with anonymity guaranteed), young people are revealing the true scale of the issue. Our latest piece of research around the subject found that over 70% of young people have felt lonely recently.

What we are witnessing is vast becoming an epidemic. Acevo recently placed the cost of youth loneliness at up to £34 billion in London alone and in addition the past few years has seen a significant rise in the number of young people seeking counselling for emotional and mental distress, which has been linked back to loneliness.

Further research has highlighted the close relationship between loneliness and poor physical and mental health, plus the risk of becoming involved in criminal activity. One study recently revealed loneliness has a more damaging effect than 15 cigarettes a day.

So, why's this happening?

The reality is that the reasons are complex and multifaceted. It's too easy to solely point the finger at the negative effects of social media.

We work with thousands of young people facing disadvantage every year and a significant proportion of them suffer from loneliness for a diverse range of reasons. It's a spiral that's very difficult to escape from.

However, the strongest resemblance we see between those suffering from loneliness are low levels of self-esteem, self-confidence and anxiety, which in turn leads to their inability to form a network of positive social relationships.

In a growing population, I don't believe that it's a shortage of people causing loneliness, but instead an inability for young people to connect meaningfully with their peers and others around them.

This is often termed as 'social intelligence' and it's easy for those who possess it to undervalue the important role it plays in aiding them with interaction on a daily basis. Social relationships are an essential component of human life; without them it's possible to lose all sense of meaning or establish the support networks needed to progress.

Developing 'social intelligence' is not just essential for individuals but also for the success of the UK economy.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the study we conducted was the disparity between loneliness and attitudes, such as confidence and resilience. These are both key components towards being able to achieve strong social networks, enjoy career success, lead a healthy lifestyle and become involved in meaningful activities.

One of the biggest risks of not having these attitudes is that it can bring about a sense of being excluded from social groups, which can make a young person feel extremely vulnerable or anxious. This in turn triggers a psychological response, which can lead to them become less trusting; often reacting to those around them in a hostile and defensive manner.

Because of this, young people incur difficulty responding to others appropriately or choose to avoid contact altogether. This is when loneliness strikes.

To end this spiral requires someone a young person can trust and an environment where they feel safe and comfortable. It requires someone to help them realise their potential and unlock the confidence and resilience from within them. If this is found, the intervention can be truly life transforming.

On numerous occasions, I've seen first-hand how young people have become unrecognisable as the result of effective mentoring. Perhaps the key benefit of this approach is that it provides young people with a dependable and secure relationship. This gives the individual vital experience about what a positive relationship entails, which empowers them to build similar relationships with others.

Encouragingly, there's lots of great work going on in the sector to tackle the issue through mentoring and befriending schemes, however demand is now beginning to outweigh supply. It's important that we continue to develop the support available in this area and vitally remove the stigma attached to youth loneliness.

If we can achieve this we'll prevent the issue becoming more sustained and ingrained within modern society and avoid the often devastating impact loneliness has on the lives of young people and also the rising cost that the consequences have on our public services.

Dame Kelly Holmes Trust is currently working with young people facing disadvantage in isolated and rural areas of the UK, following an extra award from players of People's Postcode Lottery. The research component of this blog forms part of Dame Kelly Holmes Trust's 'Loneliness Appeal', which aims to end loneliness for young people across the UK. For more information about the campaign and to show your support visit www.damekellyholmestrust.org or text LONE08 £5 to 70070 to donate £5 today.

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